Classics Illustrated, Uncle Tom's Cabin Review

By | Friday, February 10, 2012 Leave a Comment
The Classics Illustrated line of comics started in 1941 under the Classic Comics title. Each issue retold a piece of prose literature that was considered a "classic" in a comic book format, the idea being that if you liked the comic, you'd find the original at least as engaging.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was #15 in the series. While I was initially surprised that such a direct look at slavery in the U.S. would've been promoted in the early 1940s, I did discover that Harriet Beecher Stowe's original book was in fact THE most widely sold novel of the 19th century. It stands to reason that it was most assuredly very well-known and well-read even as late as the 1940s, thus making it an early candidate for the Classics Illustrated treatment.

The story is mostly about the titular "Uncle Tom" who we first meet as a slave in the mid-1800s. Readers follow his life as he's sold repeatedly, eventually dying after a severe beating from his owner. Tom is shown to be fairly accepting of the status quo, and resigns himself to a life of slavery. He's largely driven by a desire to not rock the boat, and just deal with the short term issues at hand. Here in the 21st century, it's not difficult to see how the book helped to really push the abolitionist movement at the time it was first published, but also how the depictions of the characters are fairly shallow and led to broad negative stereotypes.

This comic adaptation, not surprisingly, skips over bits of the original. Largely for space reasons, I should think. There's no compunction about depicting Topsy as a pickaninny, for example, despite her not being germane to the main plot. There's no hesitation in the language either, as dialects are written phonetically and the N-bomb is dropped a couple times. So they clearly weren't concerned about editing for cultural reasons. Still, the story mostly flows pretty well; although the ultimate fates of Eliza and her son, and Cassy and Emmeline are left unresolved in the comic. It's implied they completed their escapes as planned, but that leaves a lot to the reader's assumptions.

The art here is credited to Rolland H. Livingstone. His name does show up a few times in early comics, but little is known about him. His illustrations are serviceable, but very stiff. I don't think there's a single character here that actually bends their back in any way. People bend over at the hips and knees, but praying, falling, sitting, getting beaten... everyone has perfect posture all the time. Additionally, the text is all typeset, which adds to the book's overall stiffness. Everything in the comic feels very static, so there's no real sense of danger or excitement when, for example, Eliza is leaping across the Ohio river on chunks of floating ice.

Further, Livingstone seems to have trouble drawing black people, sometimes inking their faces so heavily that they almost become silhouettes. The coloring is also awkward in places. Credit to the unnamed colorist for providing the various characters with a fairly wide variety of skin tones (which is, in fact, a plot point) but it's very inconsistent with individual characters' skin colors lightening and darkening throughout the book. Understandable, to a degree, given the printing technology of the time but, again, specific skin tones are a plot point so it's more noticeable when it gets garfed up.

Overall, I think this adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin is a reasonable, but definitely not great, one. If your sole interest is getting across the basic story and maybe suggesting a read of the original, this would probably suffice. It does suffer some of the same problems as the original, but it includes them deliberately, I think, so as to honor Stowe's work. Consequently, if you're offended by the story, you'll be offended by Classics Illustrated #15. If you can keep a sense of perspective about the contexts of both the original and this adaptation, I think you'll find that it served it's intended purpose.
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